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Visions of Glory: Eternal Life

William Sykes contemplates the concept of eternal life.

Eternal life—existing always, without end or usually beginning; a quality and value of life; endless life after death; being eternal
Two writers who feature in Visions of Glory have give me an insight into the meaning of eternal life. The first is William Barclay, who wrote that eternal life is the life of
God, and to have eternal life is to share in the life of God. The second is George Appleton. According to him Jesus did not promise simply life after death, but a quality of life now. He promised us eternal life, the sharing of God's life, participation in his own risen life. This is a quality of life, the kind of life Jesus had, human life permeated by the grace and love of God, and so invulnerable to physical death. He concluded that if we have this life within us now, we shall not worry about our last migration into the spiritual world, for we shall know a good deal about it already.

I have found both these insights helpful in understanding my limited experience of eternal life. I recall hearing a piece of music and feeling as if another dimension of life was opening up for me. I remember standing in front of a work of art and being transported with delight into what seemed to be another world. Sometimes a poem has triggered off all sorts of exciting harmonious feelings. The practice of reflection has been full of such openings. My experience of eternal life, limited as it is, is best summed up by the account written by Johannes Anker-Larsen at the end of this section.

The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Deuteronomy 33:27

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children.
Psalm 103:17

But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
John 4:14

This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
John 17:3

Time is eternity; and we live in eternity now.
Herman Melville, Mardi, The New American Library of World Literature, 1964, page 516

The truest end of life is to know the life that never ends. William Penn, Fruits of Solitude, A.W. Bennett, 1863, page 60
The noise of the moment scoffs at the music of the Eternal.
Rabindranath Tagore, 'Stray Birds', xcvi, in Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore, Macmillan and Co.,
1936, page 299

If there is a God and a future life, then there is truth and goodness; and man's highest happiness consists in striving to attain them.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin Books, 1969, volume 1, page 455

The real business of life... is to 'piece this life with the life of Heaven, to see it as one with all Eternity, a part of it, a life within it.'
Rufus M.Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 11th Centuries, Macmillan and Co., 1914, page 335

But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared.
Thomas Traherne, Centuries, The Faith Press, 1969, page 110
Any one who feels the full significance of what is involved in knowing the truth has a coercive feeling that Eternity has been set within us, that our finite life is deeply rooted in the all pervading Infinite.
Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Macmillan and Co., 1914, page xxxiv

The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity...
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais, lii. 460, in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oxford University
Press, 1935, page 110

Eternal life is not a gift as something out of the hand of God, like a sceptre, or like a coronet. It is a gift as education is; something wrought patiently and long in a man. It is a gift as the sunlight is to the flowers—an influence which enters into them and fashions them.
Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, Charles Burnet & Co., 1887, page 168

... so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Frost at Midnight', in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, volume 1, page 242

... Eternity is not an endless addition of 'times'—a weak infinite series of durations, but rather a Reality in which all true realities abide, and which retains in a present now all beginnings and all endings. Eternity is just the real world for which we were made and which we enter through the door of love.
Rufus M.Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Macmillan and Co., 1914, page 335

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years, and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.
Thornton Wilder, Our Town, act III, Longmans, Green and Co., 1964, page 93

We have defined the 'eternal' as what is perfect and unchanging; the life of the blessed must be perfect in the sense that it is all of one quality—and that the highest and holiest; it is unchanging in the sense that nothing is lost and nothing gained, for all is at the same level. On the other hand, the blessed are not the same as God, nor are they the same as one another; therefore outside (so to speak) the perfection of each there is an ocean of perfection that can be the object of their experience. God is unchanging, because there is nothing outside Himself; the blessed, while firm in the unity of their inner perfection, may have constant enrichment from outside—if I may again use what is only a metaphor.
Frank Herbert Brabant, Time and Eternity in Christian Thought, Longmans, Green and Co., 1937, page 221

Eternally, and for ever, in heaven, says St John, Christ says and is and does what prophets prophesied of Him that He would say and be and do. 'I am the Root and Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star. And let him that is athirst, come: and whosoever will, let him take the Water of Life freely.' For ever Christ calls to every anxious soul, every afflicted soul, to every man who is ashamed of himself, and angry with himself, and longs to live a gentler, nobler, purer, truer, and more useful life, 'Come, and live for ever the eternal life of righteousness, holiness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, which is the one true and only salvation bought for us by the precious blood of Christ our Lord.'
Charles Kingsley, Daily Thoughts, Macmillan and Co., 1884, page 11

'Eternal life'—or, what in these writings is the same thing, 'life'—comes through the reception of the Spirit, in a birth from above. 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.' When the Spirit comes as the initiator of this abundant life, then we 'know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit,' and it becomes possible for the Spirit-led person to be guided 'into all the truth,' to 'love even as He loved,' and to 'overcome the world.' Here, again, the human race is divided into those who have 'received of the Spirit,' and those who have not so received; those who are 'born from above' and those who have had only a natural birth; the twice born and the once-born; those who are 'of the Spirit,' i.e. spiritual, and those who are 'of this world,' i.e. empirical.
Rufus M.Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Macmillan and Co., 1914, page xii

Now let us take the idea of eternal life. It is far better to speak of eternallife than to speak of everlastinglife. The main idea behind eternal life is not simply that of duration. It is quite clear that a life which went on for ever could just as easily be hell as heaven. The idea behind eternal life is the idea of a certain quality, a certain kind of life. What kind of life? There is only one person who can properly be described by this adjective eternal (aionios) and that one person is God. Eternal life is the kind of life that God lives; it is God's life. To enter into eternal life is to enter into possession of that kind of life which is the life of God. It is to be lifted up above merely human, temporary, passing, transient things, into that joy and peace which belong only to God. And clearly, a man can only enter into this close communion and fellowship with God when he renders to God that love, that reverence, that devotion, that obedience which truly bring him into fellowship with God.
William Barclay, The Gospel of John, The Saint Andrew Press, 1965, volume 1, page 118

Now I come to that which is the most difficult to explain—the meeting with Eternity.
While I was still on my way, I noticed how Time and Space had loosened my handcuffs. Yearnings and painful longings were diminished, whether it be toward places or people whom I had become attached. Not that my feelings had grown cold, but I could no longer feel separation with the old force. There is a condition in which it ceases to exist.
Every object which we know has been christened by Time and Space. Every name means limitation, every word is an expression for something in distinction to something else. In the everlasting Now there is neither Space nor Time, neither limitation nor distinction. Even the language of the gods would be inadequate to describe it, and the 'language of Heaven' cannot be spoken or written; it is lived. Tongue and pen can tell lies, the language of Heaven is the life of true reality in man and imparts itself directly from soul to soul, with those who are wholly and really living in truth. Words cannot describe the wordless, and I am no artist in handling words, even within the realm of words.
But now I will try to express myself on the subject as plainly and simply as I can. I select a summer day's meeting between Time and Eternity and describe it in as far as it can be described.
I had been sitting in the garden working and had just finished. That afternoon I was to go to Copenhagen, but it was still an hour and a half before the departure of the train. The weather was beautiful, the air clear and pure. I lighted a cigar and sat down in one of the easy-chairs in front of the house. It was still and peaceful—around me and within me. Too good, in fact, to allow one to think much about anything. I just sat there. Then it began to come, that infinite tenderness, which is purer and deeper than that of lovers, or of a father toward his child. It was in me, but it also came to me, as the air came to my lungs. As usual, the breathing became sober and reverent, became, as it were, incorporeal; I inhaled the tenderness. Needless to say the cigar went out. I did not cast it away like a sin, I simply had no use for it.
This deep tenderness which I felt, first within myself and then even stronger around and above me, extended further and further—it became all-present. I saw it, and it developed into knowing, into knowing all, at the same time it became power, omnipo¬tence, and drew me into the eternal Now.
That was my first actual meeting with Reality; because such is the real life: a Now which is and a Now which happens. There is no beginning and no end. I cannot say any more about this Now. I sat in my garden, but there was no place in the world where I was not.
During the whole time my consciousness was clear and sober. I sat in the garden and acknowledged it with a smile. There was something to smile over, for time and space, characteristics of the Now which happens were so to speak 'outside.' But what is the Now which happens? It is continuously active creation with all its birth throes. I saw time and space as instruments or functions of this creation. They come into existence with it and in the course of it, and with it they come to an end. The Newly Created stands in the Now and discards these tools. The freedom, the real Being begins.
Johannes Anker-Larsen, from With the Door Open, in Anne Freemantle, editor, The Protestant Mystics, The New
American Library, 1965, page 253


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